Here's a quick quiz: empty space in a photograph is a) good b) bad. You're right, it was a trick question. The answer is sometimes a, sometimes b, depending on your subject and scene. But the reason I asked you that question is because a common mistake among hobby photographers is in neglecting empty space altogether, all the time. The truth is that empty space can be a very effective compositional tool; the trick is in learning when to use it, and when not to.
Space is the next in our series covering the six design elements, which also includes shape, form, line, color and texture. It may also be the most difficult of the six to completely quantify, since space is often concerned with what we don't see rather than what we do.
What does "space" mean in photography?
Space in photography can actually be understood in a couple of ways. First (and this is the kind of space I'll be focusing on in this article), space can be understood as that part of your photograph that exists around a subject, usually the part of the frame that's empty or filled with a vast expanse of sky, water or some other simple background element that doesn't have a lot of distracting elements of its own. Second, it can be used to describe the way in which your foreground and background combine to create an image that has depth.
First let's talk about positive and negative space. The first myth to dispel when talking about space is that negative space--the empty area around your subject--equals a boring photograph. In fact, negative space can actually draw your viewer's attention to a subject, as well as invoke varying emotions. Depending on the setting, those emotions can range from feelings of isolation to feelings of joy, or even a sense of opportunity. Additionally, when you separate your subject from a cluttered background you are simplifying your image, thereby making it more compelling.
Why Space is Important
To get a handle on when to use space and when not to, think of your camera frame as a box you're putting your subject into. Is she looking out of the box towards the camera? If so, the viewers of that photograph are probably going to be OK with a tightly cropped frame. But what if she is looking away from the camera, at something that isn't in the frame? Then the box you've just put her in is going to seem far too confining if it is tightly cropped. Your subject needs some space to look into. If you don't give it to her, the photograph is going to make your viewer feel uncomfortable or even trapped.
Empty space creates a sense of possibility or mystery. What is she looking at so intently? Is there someone else off camera, or is there an exciting or beautiful scene on the other side of that frame? The question will draw your viewer's eye into that space and create interest that wouldn't be there in a similar, but tightly-cropped version of the same image.
Active space vs. dead space
What if your subject is running, walking or jumping? Then as a general rule, he needs to have some space to move into. Professional photographers call this "active" space vs. "dead" space. The dead space is the space behind the subject, where the action is over and done with. The active space is the space in front of the subject, the destination or the place where the action will resolve after the moment that was captured in the image. If you de-emphasize the dead space by making it smaller, and you leave plenty of active space, you will create an image that is dynamic and engaging.
Of course all rules can be broken, especially photographic ones. You've probably seen successful images where active and dead space are reversed, with the subject appearing to collide with the edge of the frame. This technique can evoke totally different feelings in your viewer. It can create a sense of speed, by suggesting that the camera couldn't move fast enough to keep up with the subject. It can also create a sense of urgency, since the subject appears to be fleeing the frame. It also places more importance on where the subject has been, rather than where he is going.
When to use empty space, and how much?
That's another trick question. The amount of empty space in any photograph should be directly proportional to the dramatic impact of your subject itself. That's not to say that your tantrum-ing toddler should necessarily be photographed with a lot of empty space around him (because that's a whole 'nother kind of drama), but that you should give each scene a case-by-case evaluation for dramatic qualities and corresponding space requirements. A very dramatic subject, for example, such as a person standing on the edge of a canyon, calls for more negative space, not less. A less dramatic subject, such as a dog sitting on a beach, calls for less negative space.
The rule of thirds works very well with exercises in negative space. When experimenting with this element of design, try dividing your frame up with two horizontal and two vertical lines into nine equal-sized portions. Then place your subject at the intersection between two of those lines. Fill the rest of the frame with negative space, then see how dramatic your resulting images are.
Space and depth
The final way of looking at space is as a way of creating depth. In addition to including space to the left or right of the frame, you can also, in effect, create space in the background - in that part of the photo that would be three-dimensional if you were viewing it in the real world instead of on a computer screen or a photographic print. To do this, you need to use a smaller f-stop, which gives you a shorter depth of field. When the background falls out of focus, it creates an illusion of depth and space, where a completely in-focus background might actually seem flat when recreated in two dimensions.
You can also create a sense of three dimensional space by shooting for a broad range of tones, from bright highlights to dark shadows, and varying shades in between. Take care to include elements in your foreground and background that work together to separate those two parts of the scene; ideally, you want the largest-appearing objects in the foreground and the smaller ones in the background.
With almost any compositional rule, remember that the goal is to make your viewer feel like he is looking through a window at a three dimensional scene just beyond his reach. Since in our world, space is the defining element of those three dimensions, capturing it effectively on camera can be seen as an exercise in capturing reality.
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